“There aren’t too many literary journals around in India these days, especially in English – off the top of my head, only the Little Magazine and the Sahitya Akademi’s journal come to mind,” says Rahul Soni, one of the founders of Pratilipi, a multilingual, online literary journal based in India. True, the little magazine tradition in India isn’t new – one famous name to grow out of it, poet Arun Kolatkar, was first published in several small, perhaps now obscure, magazines in the 1970s. But it’s also true that an interested reader now would be hard-pressed to find magazines which dedicatedly tap into the pulse of contemporary writing in India – definitely not with ease – browsing through magazine stalls or the shelves of a neighborhood bookstore. Is the literary journal dying a slow but inevitable death? Hardly, scoff the growing number of journals that have been leading almost secret lives on the Internet: they have merely shifted locations. A simple Google search for names like Pratilipi, Muse India, Kritya, Pyrta, Out of Print, Almost Island, Coldnoon and The Four Quarters Magazine – all online literary journals steadily publishing new voices for several years now – reveals a profusion of multi-genre contemporary writing from across the country, just one click away.
While their print counterparts may be weighed down by restrictions placed by availability of investments, financial viability, limits of geography, marketing and distribution, online journals are more cost-effective and resolve the question of accessibility, at least, instantly. Pioneers in the field, literary journals Muse India and Kritya, were launched in 2005 when avenues to showcase new writing were rare. “We all felt that time was ripe to launch a web journal that would showcase Indian literature – writing in English as well as translations from all regional literatures – to a pan Indian and a global readership on the net,” says GSP Rao, Managing Editor of Muse India. Since its inception, Muse India has acquired a membership base of 5500 from over 40 countries, mostly Indians living here and elsewhere, and their website gets around 10,000 visits per month.
Muse India and most other e-journals try to publish a balance of fiction, poetry, criticism and translations, indulging an occasional theme-based issue, but for journals like Kritya and Coldnoon, theme is all-pervasive. Kritya, the first bilingual online literary journal dedicated purely to poetry, was started by Kerala-based Rati Saxena, who felt that poetry was being seriously neglected in mainstream publishing. Saxena, although lenient with the submission criteria that she employs, is impatient with writing that is too derivative. “One must read Mirabai, but simply imitating her does not make you an authentic voice,” she says. “It’s difficult to define, but poetry is something that’s contemporary to you, a strange and private thing.”
While their print counterparts may be weighed down by restrictions placed by availability of investments, financial viability, limits of geography, marketing and distribution, online journals are more cost-effective and resolve the question of accessibility, at least, instantly.
Arup K. Chatterjee’s Coldnoon, on the other hand, is a quarterly of travel poetics which aims to chart out “a coherent and voluminous poetics of travel”. He publishes non-fiction and criticism along with poetry on travel. “I look for obedience to the guidelines first,” he stresses, adding that it doesn’t necessarily limit the material he considers: he enjoys reading of metaphorical journeys as well, even if between “parts of the human body, the universe, mechanical parts of gadgets, the primary movement of electrons”. The idea is to look for travel motifs. “Some do it exactly, some abstractly,” he says. Coldnoon was launched recently, in September 2011, and started out with a 250-350 hits every day, but in six months it had doubled, en-route to a present statistic of 900-1000 hits and around 100 unique visitors per day. This is a pattern that most other journals mirror, the number of visitors peaking at the launch of a new issue and for some weeks after.
Often funded by the founders or, in some cases, sponsors or literary trusts involved in unearthing new literary talent and providing a forum for good writing, each journal has its own intimate story of origin. While Chatterjee’s journal began on a very personal and philosophical note – an epiphany during a train journey, author Janice Pariat’s Pyrta (“a journal of poetry and other things”), launched in June 2010, materialised after she’d moved back to Shillong after many years in Delhi. On meeting a dedicated group of writers and poets, both well-established and hesitant young voices, she decided she wanted Pyrta to be a space which would showcase their work alongside others from the rest of the country and the world. “They say that writers write the books they want to read. I started Pyrta because it’s the kind of literary journal that I wanted to see – beautiful text, images, sketches and artwork within a clean and elegant setting,” says Pariat, adding with a touch of pride that, apart from its content, Pyrta has also been praised for its slick, stylish look.
Journals like Out of Print(above), Pratilipi(below) and Pyrta(below) have been publishing new voices for several years now
Tagged “the short story on line”, Out of Print, whose first issue came out in September 2010, took shape when founding editor Indira Chandrasekhar, trying to place her own fiction, found that her work was being published only in literary magazines outside India. “The Indian voice in English discovers new strength, direction and relevance in the context of the contemporary climate of the subcontinent,” opines Chandrasekhar, “and the more platforms there are for this writing, the better.” Out of Print, like almost every other e-journal, despite the desire to, cannot afford to pay their writers. Chandrasekhar hopes the situation will soon change with the help of sponsors.
“Writers get noticed for good writing. And I’d consider both online and print attention to my work equally honorable and desirable,” says poet and novelist Nabina Das, who recently guest-edited the second issue of The Four Quarters magazine, a literary quarterly published from northeast India. Launched in 2011, TFQM, has rolling submissions all year round – work that is accepted but cannot find space in one issue is rolled over to the next issue. “But the notion that it’s easier to get published in an online journal is not correct,” she says.
Online literary journals may promise to accommodate new voices, but they are by no means less rigorous in their editing format than print publishers. Almost Island, for instance, publishing since 2006, champions only work that is “serious, daring, unique and unafraid to be strange or take risks”. They tend to have a fewer number of contributors to each issue, but feature a substantial selection from each contributor. By the time founding editor Sharmistha Mohanty and co-editor Vivek Narayanan decide to feature an author, they often need to be completely familiar with the author’s work and believe in it deeply. “I regularly read whole manuscripts, several dozen or even hundreds of pages of work by that writer, before making a selection of fifteen to twenty pages or more,” reveals Narayanan. “In this way we try to make a place for more serious, unique writers, writers you have to slowly teach yourself how to read, rather than rookies or one-hit wonders.”
Editors from publishing firms scouting for talent find literary journals an obvious place to look for interesting writing precisely for their editing standards – editors from these journals are looking for good work too, and the first process of selection has already taken place. “In many cases, writers themselves reach out because they’re confident about approaching publishers, having acquired a certain readership,” says Karthika V.K, Editor-in-chief, Harper Collins India. “But yes, we do keep track of journals.” If they spot an exceptional new voice, it may result in a publishing contract, like it did for Kuzhali Manickavel, author of Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. Manickavel was spotted by Rakesh Khanna – editor of the Chennai-based independent publishing house Blaft – on international online literary journals like SmokeLong Quarterly and DesiLit.
Author Mridula Koshy also published in several international online literary journals before her short story collection If It Is Sweet appeared in print. Writing in 2005, she was aware that the culture of reading at cafés to a live audience barely existed in Delhi, and publishing a book wasn’t something she anticipated would happen soon. But the lack of literary journals – online or print – at that time in India meant that the journals she submitted to were mostly North American. With online journals national boundaries don’t really matter, and publishers do pay attention to these journals, she acknowledges. “If nothing else, you get to send in your manuscript to a publisher or agent with a cover letter that has something beyond your name and return address – it has your previously published credits.” Journals, for Koshy, are important spaces which enable a writer to experiment, more so than established publishing routes, where a writer cannot always try out ideas that break new ground. “I’m not talking so much here about political ground, but literary. New ideas about how a story might be told, structurally, in terms of language it employs, need the experimental outlook of literary journals.”
Diversity – of voices, languages and writers – seems to be the buzzword for these journals. Pratilipi, for instance, was launched in 2008 to address a perceptible lack of space for writing in translation across the panoply of languages in Indian writing, say founders Rahul Soni, Giriraj Kiradoo and Shiv Kumar Gandhi. “We aimed at creating a multilingual, multiscript magazine that would provide a space for conversation and debate between diverse sorts of writing and writers,” explains Soni. Pratilipi, which has had over two lakh visitors since it began, boasts of an editorial team with consultants for a staggering array of languages ranging from English, Hindi, Bengali to Norwegian, Spanish and Catalan.
Since the readership circles of various literary journals overlaps considerably, as a side-effect of the market one may run across familiar writers everywhere, says Soni. While Pratilipi tries to avoid such “coterie-ization” through their multilingual approach, others circumvent it by consciously selecting a balance of well-known names and new writers to publish in their issues. Hugely optimistic for the future, Soni, for one, is certain that online journals on the rise are well and truly on the way to replacing print journals. “In the US, the magazine publishing trend coincided with the rise of a generation of new, astonishingly talented communities of writers,” he says. “We have not arrived at that synchronicity yet, but I get the feeling that we are on the cusp of something similar.”
This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian on 4th May 2013.